Monday, November 2, 2015

Of Miracles and Mountains

First things's good to be at home. It's definitely a luxury to have somewhere to return to that you love so much from somewhere that you've visited that you love just as deeply. I've always thought that from the first moment I stepped into Mulenga, that my definition of home expanded to include it. I am still surprised at it myself, knowing how fearfully and reluctantly I had made that first trip. And yet, when you step into the right place at the right time, it all seems to make sense, regardless of the details.

Many of you know that Easton was very sick on this trip. There are a million things it could have been and he wasn't the only one to get sick, but it did hit him incredibly hard and knocked him down for the better of 10 days. Incredibly, as we were greeted by our friendly Canada Customs agent, she asked him about his time away and asked if he would go back and he said, without missing a beat, "Definitely." He's feeling better and I'll elaborate at some point about all that he went through...we definitely experienced a lot on this trip.

The first part of our trip we spent with two great guys, Dawson and Bill, both from the Saskatoon area, who joined us in Zimbabwe. We flew to Harare and were met by our dear friend, Farai. It was amazing to see him again and it was as if no time had passed. Farai and his family hosted us for a month in 2012, sharing their home with us and inviting us into their family. The boys called Farai "Uncle Chips" and the nickname stuck and so at the airport, we greeted our dear Uncle Chips and he drove us back to Mutare.  We settled in at a small and comfortable guest house in Mutare after a few hours drive and were happily ready for bed very early that evening.

We spent our first few days in the community of Sukubva. Sukubva was originally built for railway workers to come and lodge in the city while working. Now, it is a densely populated and poverty stricken community with little to no infrastructure. We arrived at the care point and the children lined the gate to greet us. It was amazing to see the progress the care workers have made in building a care point and establishing a preschool program here. The children were in their lesson groups and it was so encouraging to see children learning and singing and having a safe place to be kids in the midst of this community. Soon it was time for morning porridge so the children went across the field to the kitchen area and lined up to wash their hands and get a plate of porridge. The care workers were so lovely and welcoming to each of us. We were happy to see our friends again, like Chipo and Rhoda, Pricscilla and Sarah, Longina and Christian. Barbara and her little son, Sibusiso were there and it is great to hear how they have remained so committed to the work that they started over 3 years ago now.

We travelled up to the Honde Valley and spent four nights in the community of Pimaii there. It is honestly one of the most achingly beautiful places I've ever seen. It is a mountainous area with a huge valley cutting through it, with rural agricultural communities dotting the landscape. Incredible rock faces that would render most rock climbers speechless remain untouched and undisturbed above the villages and communities below. In the rainy season, they spray waterfalls into the valleys below but at this time of year, they are dry and windswept, the falls a distant memory and a future hope.

Pimaii is an agricultural community and the children come to the care point down goat tracks and narrow paths weaving along the mountainside. Homes sit on level perches and crops are planted along terraced plateaus built onto the hillsides. Everywhere is an uphill climb from the care point and yet the care workers here go out daily to visit the homes of the children they care for. The days we are there the temperatures are reportedly into the high 40's. All we know is that when the Zimbabweans are complaining of the heat, that it's hot. We go through our store bought water quickly and rely on the belief that Zimbabwean water is safe to drink. We have to remain hydrated and walking the miles that we do in the heat, there's little choice but to drink and drink some more. Easton and I visited Pimaii in 2012 and we were so astonished at the commitment of the care workers in this particular community. They moulded and fired every brick from the mud around them to build the care centre. Every. Single. Brick. By. Hand.  Can you imagine it? Daily, these beautiful people came and built brick by brick by brick the care centre that now provides meals and education and a safe place to play for the children of this community. I can't think of an example of such commitment as huge as this one. They built it by hand and they use it for others.

We were met by George and Tyler from South Africa, as well as our friend David Bentley's parents - John and Leslie. We were joined in Pimaii by several church leaders from Mutare and from the surrounding area in Honde Valley. We walked together with the care workers through Pimaii, in an effort to show the leaders how volunteers were living out the kind of religion that James 1:27 speaks of ~true religion is this, caring for widows and orphans in their distress.  The pastors and leaders were visibly touched by the example of these care workers and motivated to support the work by using their leadership to inspire more volunteers to get involved from their local churches. It was incredible to watch the transformation from observer to participant in these leaders and I'm sure that they will be instrumental in bringing the news of this work to their churches.

We visited a new community, up in the mountains about 10 km from Pimaii, along the Mozambique border. It was high in the mountains and remote, the road was more of a dry riverbed than a passable road and this was the dry season. Care workers from this area walk 2.5 hours to reach Pimaii where they can buy supplies or visit the care point there for encouragement and training. High on the mountainside, we arrived at the care point being established by the new volunteers. We were greeted by singing and dancing, the care workers clearly excited to have visitors for the first time. It was an incredible reception. The land where they feed the children is the home of one of the care workers who knew that they needed to provide a safe place for the children to come and eat, play and learn. The place where they had been meeting was exposed to the road and didn't protect the children from those passing by who would identify them as vulnerable. The generosity and vision of this care worker to provide her own home as a base for these children to come is just another example of how selflessly these care workers are in serving their community, even from the start.

The home visits in this community were difficult. The drought of this past growing season left many without crops to sell or to consume. That meant that the already short season of plenty was virtually non-existent and the hungry season of September/October was excruciatingly long. The rains usually come the beginning of November and people were working hard to prepare their ground for planting though they were working on empty stomachs and diminished optimism. One grandmother we visited  had just rusted out pots and a bent kettle, discarded beside a tree and an empty water canister. It didn't matter that the cooking utensils were wasting away because there wasn't a single thing to cook anyway. Not. One. Thing. The children were receiving daily meals at the care point but the grandmother was only eating bananas and other seasonal fruit to survive. She was grateful that she didn't have to worry about feeding the children because there was no way she could have.  Her small plot of land was tilled and ready for seeding when the rains begin but the harvest is a far off promise and there are hungry days ahead of her. My heart was aching to hear her words translated but it was the way she spoke, with such a heavy burden to care for these grandchildren, that communicated clearly how desperate her situation is and will continue to be.

 The children in this community have to walk long distances to reach the government schools, if they are among the few who are fortunate enough to be able to afford school fees and uniforms. Many children in this area don't attend schools because they are unable to pay the fees.

We walked with several groups of children en route home from school and they were fascinated that we were visiting their community. Few spoke any English save for  greeting us and saying their names but we walked together until a few would veer off onto a track or into a yard, smiling and waving goodbye.

I'm sure we were the topic of conversation around their homes that night. I wonder at the reasons they imagined to explain our presence in their remote community.

We passed a group of small children learning together in the shade of a large tree. They began to sing for us as we passed by which was super sweet. We clapped and continued on to our next home visit on the hill above. When we returned, they began to sing again and dance, their teacher proudly leading them. We applauded and soon were joined by the children as they were dismissed for the day to return home.

Again, we were accompanied down the road by smiling, staring children who were a little timid at first but became bolder as one by one we learned their names.  As we neared the care point, some of the children came in with us and were part of the program, greeting the care workers by name and surprised to find us following along. We watched as they stowed their bags, washed their hands and lined up politely for their meal, smallest to tallest, with no fuss. Sitting around the ground, they grew quiet as they began to eat the only meal they would have that day. Sadza and beans and greens...all without comment or complaint. Older siblings sharing with younger ones, making sure that they ate well and finished their food before running off to play again. We ate with the care workers and were served enormous, hot portions of food - each of us struggling to find someone to share the plate with, our appetites diminished in the stifling heat of the day.

We were invited to hear the stories from several care workers of the children they care for and it was really moving to hear how well they knew their children, even after only a short time of starting the program. One care worker relayed the story of *Stella, a small girl of about 5, who she had discovered in the home of one of her neighbours. Stella was small and unable to walk, laying prone most of the day in the dirt, unable to communicate her needs. Her care worker, *Francine, had begun to pray for her and visit her, and showed an interest in helping her develop her strength. In just a short time, Stella responded to the care by beginning to walk and make eye contact. While Francine relayed her story, Stella tottered around the seated children and planted kisses on their heads and sought the hands of her friends. Incredible changes for a small girl who had been left to fade away. These are the miracles that selfless love is bringing about in desperate places.

As we drove back down the mountainside that evening, our vehicle was quieter than the chatter filled ride up earlier that day.  Tired and thoughtful, each of us were mulling the things we had seen. The desperation and the hunger but also the hope and the joy of small miracles like Stella in the midst of it.  It's difficult even now to think of the gogos and children there, still awaiting the rain, while we've travelled so far and to such incredible wealth of food, shelter and clothing that we can hardly choose for the plethora of options. It's never easy to return to so much when you've seen how little there is in the lives of others. It's easy to forget that they are still living that existence while we return to hot showers, cold water and fridges filled with food. There's a delicate balance in remembering and retelling so that others will know what we've seen and be compelled to be part of the solution. I felt my heart break in a familiar yet unique way yet again in the Honde Valley and I'll be a repeating record of what I've seen until I see evidence that the situation has improved. Consider yourself warned...the stories we were privy to weigh heavily and we can't carry it alone, nor are we meant to.

*Names have been changed to protect our kids and care workers
**There are ways to support the care workers in this particular community. If you haven't yet, consider donating to here in Canada. You can designate the money to our community partners in Sukubva or in Pimaii. If you'd like the name of the new community we visited so that you can support them, please email me. I'm not comfortable publishing the name of that community yet until they are firmly established and able to ensure the kids there aren't made more vulnerable by people knowing of their plight.

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